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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 13, New Delhi, March 13, 2021

Why the 2021 West Bengal State Legislative Assembly Election Matters: Domino Falls or Stays? | Sri Ayush Majumdar and Gouri Sankar Nag

Friday 12 March 2021


by Sri Ayush Majumdar and Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag

The celebration of indirect democracy begins with the election and ends with another election after a gap of few years to see the electoral mandate reflecting the satisfaction of the citizenry with the work of the elected representatives in between the two elections. The Election Commission of India as mandated under Article 324 of the Indian Constitution to conduct the state legislative assembly elections and with the complementary legislative enactment of the Representation of People Act 1951 has the power and authority to superintend, direct and control the process of free and fair election and streamline the process further from various corrupt and unwanted deficiencies that may crop up from time to time. The ECI announced the election dates of the West Bengal State Legislative Assembly 2021 from March 27 onwards till 29th April 2021 and accordingly it is to be conducted in 8 phases. The elections to the legislative assemblies of Kerala, Tamil Nadu will be taking place in a single phase whereas the election to the legislative assembly of Assam will be taking place in 3 phases. The election to the legislative assembly of the Union Territory of Puducherry will be taking place in a single phase on April 6th 2021 with the counting date on May 2nd, 2021.

The aspect of electoral process taking place through 8 phases in the state of West Bengal clearly spells out the importance of the state vis-à-vis other states. The aspect of electoral process administration being a daunting aspect due to the population factor cannot be a variable factor for such logical reasoning. The population of Assam in accordance with the Census of 2011 is 3,11,69,272 whereas the population of West Bengal in accordance with the Census of 2011 is 9,12,76,115, the population of Kerala in accordance with the Census of 2011 is 3,34,06,061 whereas the population of Tamil Nadu in accordance with the Census of 2011 is 7,21,47,030. In relative terms, the demographic differential isn’t much stark and doesn’t call for much difference in terms of action especially with regard to electoral process administration due to the population metrics being of approximate values. Hence, we introspect the difference in treatment accorded to West Bengal especially and Assam in contrast to the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu being that of electoral gain that the ruling party in centre can augment in the former. For the ruling party in the centre, the state of West Bengal is another domino that needs to fall in place with the larger political ambition or map whereas Assam being subjected to three phases is within the domain of political consolidation where the ruling party is already the incumbent party ruling the state though there is an apprehension of the possible jitters and rumblings that may arise within the electoral mandate due to the issue of CAA (Citizenship Amendment Bill) within the population of the state.

The state of West Bengal, on the other hand, is not only strategically important as a gateway to the northeast India but its long political legacy especially what gradually crystallised during the Left Front and later under the TMC led regime is still intransigent to roll out the red carpet to any overtly right-wing forces, notwithstanding the newly emerging polarization with the talk of possible dent in the aggregate vote-bank in West Bengal by the ruling party at the centre. Therefore, the stakes are higher because the momentum at large is favouring the ruling party at the centre, even though marginally, and keeping such momentum simply by capitalising dissatisfaction among the TMC bastion does not seem to work for a long time. Rather to acquire lion’s share of electoral mandate in the 294 Seat State legislative assembly in West Bengal would require drawing newer strategies and not only so, you need to reach out to women, the minorities and the real Dalits. Already there is no gainsaying the fact that the Kanyashree scheme has earned social esteem and credibility for the ruling party in West Bengal for generating enthusiasm among girls as it unleashes forces of new development dynamics in the state. Yet in the state the overall target of gender security continues to be in shambles and its past glory is faint enough to realise the share of its claimed status.

The key to political dominance in the state of West Bengal is through the Vidhan Sabha because once a party comes to power in the former, it is able to sustain itself all over the constitutionally crafted political hierarchy for a long period of time as historically evident. The democratic politics of India is quite synonymous with the Jagirdari system where the ruling party has to ensure that political leaders are provided positions of power failing which they may shift alliance to a newer frontier or location of power, significantly eroding the power base of the incumbent vis-à-vis the aspirant, leading to a situation similar to the Jagirdari crisis. This is more palpable in the context of resource crunch in the wake of post-Covid scenario that on one hand makes the state desperately seek privatization and austerity measures while on the other hand, constrains the parties to distribute patronage as extravagantly as they did earlier. Further, the erosion of the ideological bulwark in determining the decisions of the political actors and the precedence of status and power has created new tensions and more bargaining of a far more complex and restless nature. This process can be partly explained with reference to the corporatization of politics where the political leaders move from one party into another depending upon the calculus of benefits and twin-way patronage that the political party is able to fetch the political actors and latter’s contingent loyalty.

Despite the attitude taken by the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) towards Kerala and Tamil Nadu, these two states don’t assume priority in the political calculations as of now because they are not yet ready to assume independent electoral mandate necessary to form the government in these respective states. The shimmer of hope that the Lok Sabha Elections 2019 gave in terms of seat tally in Kerala was null and void and for the state of Tamil Nadu it was negligible. On the other hand, BJP gained significant ground in the state of West Bengal with 18 seats out of the 42 seats whereas in the General Election of 2014, the BJP won meagre 2 seats. Hence, there is a percentage gain of 88% in between the two general elections. Therefore, allocation of energy based on rational grounds need to be given to the state of West Bengal which can be seen from the huge deployment of CAPF personnel (125 companies) into the state in order to conduct and smoothly operate the electoral machinery in the state.

Violence has been a sine qua non feature of any election taking place in the state of West Bengal whether it be in the grassroot level to operate the RLBs or ULBs or to operate the Vidhan Sabha. Hence, the deployment of central forces cannot be questioned in any other way because the political culture of the state is characterised by violence which can be seen from rigged ballots, forms of intimidation for not letting opposition file nomination papers etc. Even in this context, the political sloganeering perspective heightens the tension or palpitations of the electoral administrative machinery in the context of the enticing slogan, “Khela Hobe”. The discourse is not an evocative ranting of some competition of benign nature but an outcome of intelligent articulation of popular notion to create an environment which literally translates to “game will be played”. Now what kind of game, albeit apparently innocuous but intentionally loaded, will be played is a matter of normative, philosophical and social concern for political commentators, administrators (executive) as well as political actors but it reflects the attitude and practice of invoking muscle power in allegorical sense to control and conduct election in traditional semi-feudal way that sends out signal to all such ruffian elements while constraining the influence of peace-loving electorate and law abiding bureaucracy.

Also there have been newer threats to the electoral capital of the TMC and its erosion with the rise of the preacher cum politician Abbas Siddique of the Indian Secular Front whose agenda seems full of mysticism and aggressive enough to deepen social rift. Assaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM entry to the politics of West Bengal is a domino with a different calculus focusing on co-opting the minority especially the Muslim population within its larger fold of a pan-India ambition but the extremely fragmented nature of the Muslim population all over India to be consolidated is a time-consuming task. However, the process has begun for AIMIM with the Bihar Vidhan Sabha electoral mandate. Yet, today’s political scenario in West Bengal is too complex to count in terms of simple socio-cultural differentiation because there are peasants, informal workers, migrant labour, educated but unemployed youth, small businessmen, established but more ambitious middle and upper middle class, aggrieved professionals and particularly at the lower rung-those contract labour, teachers, Asha workers and those living in the border areas and those who are continually displaced for fragile river banks whose votes are counted, not miseries and daily acute sufferings. They could be more troubling constituting numerous pockets of disenchantment at the present time as their demands remain unsuccessful and overshadowed in the new regionalist versus nationalist binary.

The TMC under its supremo Mamata Banerjee is trying to maintain status quo ante, failing which the TMC will see its future going in the way of erstwhile ruling parties in the state from INC to CPIM. The political mileage that is required to survive for long will no doubt assume supremacy then. The electoral outcome will test the democratic maturity of the political actors involved ranging from the citizenry to the political parties. Will there be a peaceful transition of power or back to the same violence reddened game of territorial advantage? It is a case of introspection and analysis.

Therefore, it is a zero-sum game where there is an inversely proportional relationship between the fortunes of one party to the misfortune of the other. Either you win or you lose. This equation stands true for BJP, TMC and the INC-CPIM alliance. However, for the AIMIM it can be gain on all frontier as Bengali Muslims losing their ‘Bengaliness’ is a movement towards AIMIM ideology. The fate of Bengal, as a whole, will either witness a positive course-correction or flow along an imperfect alternative with this election. For politics cannot be a cover for patchwork nor it can be a story of the glamour world or smug discussion in various news channels in the evening, rather its overriding centrality ought to be a grand alliance among the working masses, migrant workers, peasants, dalits, minorities and women based on objective of constructive socio-economic change, hence anti-elite and egalitarian in nature for recognition of rights of decent livelihood and justice.

(Authors: Sri Ayush Majumdar, Student of Atish Dipankar Srijnan Centre of South Asian Studies, S-K-B University, Purulia


Dr Gouri Sankar Nag, Head, Department of Political Science and Co-ordinator, Atish Dipankar Srijnan Centre of South Asian Studies, S-K-B University, Purulia, West Bengal)

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